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Weekly Alibi ¡Madre Mia!

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Seriously skewed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has jockeyed himself into an enviable position this year. After some 20 years in the biz and with more than a dozen cult fave films under his belt, Almodóvar is in a position to capture his very first Academy Award. Even if the golden gravy train derails and Almodóvar fails to nab the Best Foreign Film Oscar come March, he's already given us this year's most Oscar-worthy moment. The moment didn't come in his new, much-lauded film All About My Mother (though the film does contain many Oscar-caliber moments). It came, instead, during the recent Golden Globe Awards when Almodóvar took the stage to accept his Best Foreign Language Film award and unleashed an exuberantly incoherent Roberto Benigni-esque speech. "This is one of those moments," said Almodóvar, "when you are not responsible of your actors, and then you behave like crazy."

Almodóvar has good reason to behave like crazy these days. All About My Mother is his most heartfelt and accessible film to date and has garnered the writer/director a boatload of well-deserved praise. Best known for flamboyant fare like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Labyrinth of Passions, Kika and Flower of My Secret, Almodóvar has made a career out of recycling kitchy Hollywood melodrama and psychosexual weirdness into his own unique form of high camp comedy. With All About My Mother, he dives deeper than ever into the well of classic Hollywood weepers and comes up with a film that is less spoof and more solemn tribute. Drawing inspiration from backstage dramas such as All About Eve and twisted family sagas like A Streetcar Named Desire, All About My Mother tells the tearjerking story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a young mother whose teenage son is cruelly snatched from her in a fatal car accident. Moved by the final written words of her literary aspiring son -- pining for the father he never knew -- Manuela makes a vow to track down her long-lost husband and tell him of his unknown offspring.

Abandoning her life in Madrid and returning to her old stomping grounds in Barcelona, Manuela soon realizes what an uphill battle she is waging. Her ex-husband, Esteban, has left a trail of broken hearts and bent friendships in his wake, but appears to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Oh, and -- lest viewers forget that this is a Pedro Almodóvar film -- Esteban has undergone a sex change operation and is now going by the name of Lola.

Almodóvar adds to this unusual melodramatic mix his usual retinue of colorful supporting characters including transsexual prostitutes, junkie actresses and sexually provocative nuns. Despite the presence of such outrageous Almodóvarisms, All About My Mother is surprisingly straight-laced. Neither as campy nor as frantic in pace as his earlier works, Mother plays as a loving (if off-kilter) tribute to motherhood in all its myriad forms. Before long, long-suffering Manuela finds herself mothering over a string of friends both new and old, counseling them through their various crises while her own heartbreak fades ever so slightly with the scouring power of time.

As always, Almodóvar's Pop Art palate is as bright as a box of Crayolas, and his cinematography is as crisp as a freshly-minted dollar bill. The acting is, by turns, funny, warm and heartbreaking. Although the film feels like an ensemble effort, Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth does some standout work as Manuela, subtly expressing deep pain and quiet strength in a face that is both beautiful and worldly-wise. Antonio San Juan gets most of the film's laughs as Manuela's brassy transsexual sidekick Agrado -- though Almodóvar has turned down his humor quotient considerably to allow for more serious doings.

Occasionally, the film's dependence on dour plot twists drags down the momentum a tad. Stretching itself over a period of several years, the plot tends to move in fits and starts. Despite such issues with pacing, Almodóvar fills the screen with enough colorful images and curious happenings to keep all eyes facing front.

Almodóvar may not win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (few truly deserving films do), but he can rest assured in the confidence that he has created his finest filmic moment -- a warm, weird and deeply wonderful love letter to women, actresses, mothers and, well, women acting like mothers. Crazy, no?

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